Movie Review: Last Christmas

Set in London during the first Christmas season after the Brexit referendum, Last Christmas is a musical holiday movie loosely plotted around the George Michael hit of the same name.

Kate/Katarina (Emilia Clarke) is a 20-something aspiring actress whose life is a hot mess. Struggling to recover from a serious health scare, Kate’s flakiness and klutzy behavior test the patience of friends and family members. Kate’s attempts to land an acting role fall short, forcing her to maintain her “elf” position at a year-round Christmas shop run by a bossy, sharp-tongued Santa (Michelle Yeoh).

Amid this angst, handsome and mysterious Tom (Henry Golding) walks into Kate’s life.

At first reticent, Kate opens up to Tom. She enjoys their “dates,” a series of unique excursions, among them a secret garden walk and an ice-skating lesson. Tom encourages Kate to always “look up” and catch the little bits of magic. He also introduces Kate to a nearby soup kitchen, populated by an eccentric group of street folk.

When Kate starts volunteering at the local shelter, she experiences a shift of perspective and returns to her family home. Not much has changed on the home front. Her mother (Emma Thompson) bemoans her circumstances while her father (Boris Isakovic) maintains as much distance as possible from his wife.

Kate’s parents have struggled financially and culturally since fleeing the war in Yugoslavia. Watching the Brexit news further alarms Kate’s mother, who is convinced they will be forced to leave England.

Imagining herself in love with Tom, Kate becomes frustrated when he starts to take distance. Spoiler alert: Prepare for a twist in the narrative.

A delightful holiday movie that skillfully combines romantic comedy, fantasy, excellent performances, and the music of George Michael.


Movie Review: Hustlers

The brain-child of writer-director Lorene Scafaria, Hustler is based on the real-life tale about a group of high-end strippers who found creative ways to drain the bank accounts of their Wall Street clientele.

Told from the perspective of newbie stripper Destiny (Constance Wu), the early scenes focus on the budding friendship between Destiny and veteran stripper Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). Both Wu and Lopez delivery Oscar-worthy performances.

Lopez dominates those scenes as she performs a showstopping pole dance routine, demonstrates a repertoire of moves, among them the “Fireman” and “Peter Pan,” and later envelopes an adoring Destiny in the folds of her fur coat.

The 2008 recession brought this campy fun to a halt.

Down but not down for long, Ramona concocts a drug-and-fraud scheme and then persuades Destiny and several other strippers to join her new venture. Ramona’s justification: If stripping simplifies relations between men and women, why not do whatever it takes to get payment at the end of the evening?

From start to finish, the focus is on the diverse group of women who populate “real” strip clubs. Scafaria cast women of all shapes and sizes, steering away from the usual Hollywood versions. As for the scam victims, their looks and personalities could be described as forgettable. White, wealthy, and vain, these men evoke little sympathy.

When caught, Destiny repents, but amoral Ramona stays true to her principles.

While the story dates back over a decade, many of its themes still resonate. In a recent interview, Lorene Scafaria commented, “I’m hoping that the conversation outside of the movie is about gender and the economy—what it is that we provide, and what we get back. It’s not quite the fair trade.”

A thought-provoking film!

Movie Review: Judy

Renee Zellweger dug deep and transformed herself into Judy Garland.

From dieting into emaciation—the bones in her chest and back are visible—to assuming the marionette-like posture to capturing the vulnerability and insecurity of the showbiz legend, Zellweger is unrecognizable as she delivers an Oscar-worthy performance.

The film follows Garland as she arrives in London to perform a series of sold-out concerts at The Talk of the Town. Throughout the five weeks, she struggles with stage fright, alcohol, and drug abuse; tests the patience of her assistant Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley); and battles with her needling ex-husband played by Rufus Sewell.

In spite of these challenges, Garland still manages to charm her fellow musicians and fans. One of the more poignant scenes involves a brief interlude with an older gay couple who are long-time fans. Amid all this drama, she embarks on a whirlwind romance with Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), her soon-to-be fifth husband.

Barely able to function and unable to sleep, Garland is haunted by ghosts from the past. Flashbacks to the set of “The Wizard of Oz,” reveal the shocking and abusive behavior of Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) and the MGM studio staff. Determined to keep a tight rein on the teenage Garland (Darci Shaw), the powers-at-be manipulate her into taking amphetamines so she could stay slim and work 16-hour days.

At age 47, Garland is far from her prime but still able to delight her audiences with several show-stopping performances. Unfortunately, bad behavior surfaces at several points in the film. One of the most heart-wrenching scenes occurs near the end of the five-week run. Garland pleads with the audience, “You won’t forget me, will you? Promise me you won’t.”

A must-see film that will linger in consciousness.

Movie Review: Downton Abbey

Simply delightful!

As soon as Highclere Castle, aka Downton Abbey, appeared on the screen, I could hear sighs of contentment and anticipation throughout the theater. Fans of the television series, many of us have watched all six seasons and looked forward to this motion picture event.

While each major storyline had been neatly wrapped up in the 2016 finale, I knew that series creator Julian Fellowes would find an intriguing way to reunite the upstairs-downstairs cast.

His solution: King George V and Queen Mary (Queen Elizabeth’s grandparents) have planned a royal visit to Downton Abbey.

The announcement sends everyone into a tizzy.

Fearing that butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier) is not up to the task of supervising the preparations, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) calls upon Carson (Jim Carter) to come out of retirement and take charge.

Carson’s formidable skills are put to the test when the royal advance team (butler, cook, footmen, housekeeper) arrives and informs the Downton staffers that their services will not be needed during the visit.

As the rivalry between the two staffs intensifies, lady’s maid Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) takes charge and organizes a “downstairs” rebellion. A series of humorous escapades follow. My favorite involves Molesley (Kevin Doyle), the socially clumsy footman, who shocks the royals and all in attendance with his shenanigans.

Upstairs, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) deals with an assassination attempt and a possible love connection, and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) argues with a distant cousin (Imelda Staunton) over an inheritance.

The Dowager Countess and Isobel Grey (Penelope Wilton) are in rare form as they deliver verbal salvos throughout the film. Julian Fellowes should consider a spin-off with these two characters.

In a recent interview, Fellowes was asked if there would be another Downton Abbey movie. He responded, “Well, there’s always that chance.”

Let’s hope he takes that chance.

Movie Review: Road to the Lemon Grove

Italians and Italians-at-heart will enjoy this humorous–sometimes outrageous–film about a middle-aged Canadian professor, Calogero Contantini, and his recently deceased father Antonio. Performer, writer and lecturer Charly Chiarelli takes on both roles.

The film opens with Antonio awaiting entry to heaven. The voice of God (Loreena McKennitt) informs Antonio that he must make peace with his estranged son before entering the Pearly Gates. Frustrated but determined, Antonio’s ghost haunts (and stalks) Calogero for most of the film.

Antonio has one last mission for his son: Spread his ashes in the lemon groves of Sicily and reunite the two warring branches of the family.

To further complicate the situation, Calogero has only fourteen days to accomplish these tasks. If he is unsuccessful, the lemon grove and all of Antonio’s assets will go to the scheming relatives, led by Vincenzo (Burt Young) and his sidekick Guido (Nick Mancuso).

A series of comical (and sometimes contrived) scenes follow as Calogero argues with his father’s ghost, has a meltdown during a lecture, travels to Sicily, meets the relatives, connects with a beautiful Italian actress (Rosella Brescia), and participates in a final “pasta” showdown.

Flashbacks to Calogero’s youth provide glimpses into the challenges faced by new immigrants during the 1950s and 1960s. I would have liked more scenes depicting these frustrating (often comical) brushes with bureaucrats.

Light and entertaining fare set against a beautiful Sicilian backdrop.

Movie Review: Blinded by the Light

Set in the suburban town of Luton (England), this film is based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir about growing up Pakistani in the late 1980s.

Javed (brilliantly played by Viveik Kalra) longs to escape the restraints imposed by his domineering father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) and the bigotry of the town. A creative soul, Javed finds solace in his journals as he focuses on getting good grades. Manchester University—200 miles away—is his best (and only) hope.

Everything changes when a fellow classmate (Aaron Phagura) gives Javed cassettes of Born in the U.S.A. and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Transfixed by the music, Javed experiences an immediate connection with Bruce Springsteen. Typewritten lyrics start to swirl in what can only be described as a literal windstorm.

With the Boss as his guide, Javed starts to make changes in his own life. He drops Economics and signs up for Creative Writing, writes essays and poems about Bruce’s lyrics, stands up to local skinheads, and approaches his high school crush Eliza (Nell Williams).

On the homefront, Malik loses his factory job, and Javed’s mother Noor (Meera Ganatra) works twelve- to fourteen-hour days to keep the family afloat. Father-son relations intensify as Malik becomes more over-bearing, dismissing Javed’s writing dream and forbidding him to attend a Bruce Springsteen concert.

As the economy stalls and more people lose their jobs, white supremacy rears its ugly head. A violent skinhead march interrupts a Pakistani wedding, reminding us of the racial tensions that still exist in 2019. The indignities suffered by the Pakistani families are appalling. And what is even more heart-wrenching is the powerlessness of the community.

With the help of a dedicated English teacher (Hayley Atwell), Javed becomes more confident in his writing and goes on to achieve local and international acclaim.

A must-see film that will evoke many emotions. Bring tissues.

Movie Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain

Having enjoyed reading Garth Stein’s best-selling novel, I wondered if the screen version could capture the philosophical dog’s witty (and sometimes) grouchy inner monologue.

I needn’t have worried.

Director Simon Curtis’s decision to use Kevin Costner as Enzo’s “voice” was a stroke of genius.

On the eve of his death, Enzo takes stock of his life and recalls all the experiences of his family: struggling race car driver Denny Swift (Milo Venitmiglia), wife Eve (Amanda Seyfried), and their daughter Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong).

Intelligent and introspective, the adorable Golden Retriever believes that good dogs will be reincarnated as people in their next lives. With that goal in mind, Enzo spends his days trying to absorb as much as possible about the human condition. He watches over his family through happiness, tragedy, and a troublesome court case that dominates the film’s second half.

An avid television fan, Enzo follows the latest news in the racing car industry and takes to heart the findings of a Mongolian documentary. In spite of his enlightened views, he is intimidated and frustrated by a toy zebra in Zoe’s bedroom. A bizarre encounter follows.

Enzo often laments his limitations, among them a flat tongue that prevents him from speaking English and the lack of thumbs that hinder his ability to open doors.

This family-friendly film will appeal to dog lovers and wannabe dog lovers. Remember to bring tissues.